Developing Surveys to Use in Your Public Relations Efforts, Part 2

In my previous article about survey development, I described some issues relating to survey participant pool sizes and tips for developing better questionnaires to lead to more media friendly and attention-grabbing data points for public relations.

Common questions I get from clients tend toward: “Do I have to pay for a survey company? Can’t we just do our own using our own lists? Or do it on social media?” Yes, you can use a cost-effective tool like Survey Monkey if the goal of your survey is to get some fun facts. But if you are surveying your existing lists of customers, partners, and prospects — or doing a simple Twitter poll — the audience is not representative. The media won’t find your survey credible.

survey for public relations

“Surveys based on self-selected volunteers, such as opt-in online polls, do not have a grounded statistical tie to the population. Estimates from self-selected volunteers are subject to unknown errors that cannot be measured,” said the American Association for Public Opinion Research about what it calls a “credibility interval.” If you want your research to be taken seriously by mainstream media, you need a serious survey partner — professional reporters will ask the source of your data and the margin of sampling error.

Paying for what you get

Consider working with a reputable research partner that is an expert in conducting surveys. A few that Sterling Communications clients have worked with — or that have been recommended by other public relations professionals — include these U.S. and U.K.-based firms (listed in alphabetical order): Audience Audit, Cite Research, Dimensional Research, Harris Poll, OnePoll, Qualtrics, Researchscape International, Sapio Research, Toluna, Uncover Research, Vitreous World, and Wakefield Research.

Some of these companies are full-service research vendors that will help you develop the survey questionnaire, identify and recruit the participants, tabulate results, provide reports and charts and graphics in varying detail, and even assemble pitch guides for use with media. Others may focus more on just the surveying steps and data analysis. If you have your own resources for design and media relations who are already expert at your branding and messaging, then you might opt for cost-effective options that will allow you to cherry-pick the stages of the process for which you need support.

If you have deep pockets, you can also commission surveys from respected analyst firms such as Gartner, IDC, Forrester, and Frost & Sullivan; or from a customer publishing house like MIT Technology Review Insights. Their logo will give your survey project the burnished patina of serious qualitative and/or quantitative research. However, they are also highly protective of their brand reputation, so will have more restrictions over how you promote the research.

Doing survey development right

Survey projects require planning and a great deal of thought to ensure you get a useful outcome. “Garbage in, garbage out” really does apply.

Don’t forget to get buy-in from senior management, as you want someone to act as survey spokesperson for follow-on public relations activities. If you don’t have their support, then they won’t be excited to tout the surevy’s output at conferences, in podcasts, and throughout the company’s marketing content.

Happy surveying!

If you’d like more help in developing a survey or you have exciting research to promote to the media, send us an email at go@sterlingpr.com.

Developing Surveys to Use in Your Public Relations Efforts, Part 1

Surveys can be powerful tools for public relations teams as well as product marketing teams. They can serve dual purposes, demonstrating thought leadership and/or collecting data to provide insight into a particular market segment or audience stance on an issue. 

surveys for public relations

But a survey developed for PR purposes — say, to elicit “fun facts” to weave into contributed articles, blog posts, and media pitches — may not produce the quantitative and qualitative insights that a product marketing team needs for refining products and services. If you simply want a data point to validate a marketing point, it may be more effective to find publicly available data or pay a third-party for reuse rights. 

Before developing a survey, it’s important to agree up front on intended purpose and hard-data-versus-soft goals, as that will guide the questions and format, and determine the necessary survey respondent pool size. Those in turn affect cost and final product — report, slides, standalone graphics, landing page, etc.

Surveys do require a lot of effort to do well. In developing PR-focused surveys for clients, I have found three key stumbling blocks:

  • Survey pool sizes (and traps)
  • Questionnaire development
  • DIY or tapping a vendor (Part 2)

How big is the pool?

For your survey to be viewed as credible, you need to be transparent regarding the survey pool size and the source of the respondents. That’s why a press release or article or slide deck about survey results will have fine print disclosing the demographics.

If your survey data is collected from a group that isn’t a good approximation of the population as a whole, then it may be biased. When a survey vendor looked at a corpus of press releases to determine common sample sizes for PR-focused surveys, the median size was about 1,000. A survey of 1,000 people in Australia (26 million in 2021) is obviously far more statistically valid for consumer sentiment than a survey of 1,000 people in the U.S. (332 million).

Business-to-business (B2B) surveys of highly targeted audiences (say, IT professionals at North American companies with a minimum of 1,000 employees) do typically have lower sample sizes than surveys of general consumers, voters, or employees. The same survey vendor found the median size of a B2B survey was 377 respondents vs. 1,032 respondents for a business-to-consumer (B2C) survey.

The trap of Simpson’s paradox

Be wary of pooling survey results to get “global” or “multi-country” results. Simpson’s paradox, also known as the amalgamation paradox, is a phenomenon in probability and statistics in which a trend appears in several different groups of data but reverses or disappears when these groups are combined. 

Comparisons of results across countries is interesting for the cultural perspective, but consolidated, averaged data may not accurately represent the population sentiment of any country. 

For example, perhaps you do business in Latin America as well as the U.S. Your product marketing team wants a survey that reflects a Latin American market that is similar in size to that of the U.S. You may survey the same number of people in three countries of vastly different sizes — Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, for example. If you look at the data country-to-country, there may be significant differences among them, as well as in comparison to the United States. But when you pool the data across the three countries for an overall “Latin American” result to compare to the U.S., the combined result may give you very misleading impressions. That can lead to poor decisions related to any product aimed at those countries.

That is the question

I have learned the hard way that the more time and analysis that goes into the development of the survey questionnaire, the more useful the data will be. 

Screening questions. Decide how finely you want to slice and dice your data, depending on whether you’re using the data for general PR visibility or for true market research. You’ll want some screening questions, but do you need to know age, gender, race, geographic region, company size? Those questions “count” toward the number of questions you are asking. You don’t want the survey to be too long, as the participant may get frustrated and quit. You may also be paying for a certain number of questions.

Yes/No questions. A survey that you’re conducting for PR purposes should produce bigger extremes in responses, in order to get more headline-worthy numbers. Meanwhile, a survey designed to produce true marketing insight may need questions that will result in more nuanced responses. Yes/no, black/white questions that force people to choose a single option instead of multiple choice or carousel “choose all that apply” responses will result in bigger numbers for stronger statements. In that way, if 30% said Yes, you can accurately assume 70% said No — instead of 40% No and 15% Sometimes and 15% Frequently. It’s easier to “reverse the math” or flip statements from a negative to a positive in order to get a headline-worthy number.

Avoid negative assumptions. Try to avoid questions that will result in twisty logic and false assumptions. For example, “Which of these options do you dislike the most?” or “Which do you like the least”? assumes all are disliked. Therefore, you can’t assume reverse statements are true (that people like X most). It’s better to ask positive questions (“Which do you like the most?” or “Rank by the order you like most”) and then assume the option with the lowest ranking is most disliked/least preferred/least favorite. 

Question language and flow. Your questions should have a natural, logical order and build upon each other to help steer the thought process of the survey respondent. Sometimes new questions are added late in the development process but there’s a related question elsewhere in the survey. If you want to keep them both, it makes sense to have them appear consecutively. And be sure you’re using consistent terminology or have a reason for variance, for example, “customer support” versus “customer service” versus “customer experience.”

Second-guess yourself. Review each question in the survey and consider, “Why are we asking this? Who wants this info? What will be the resulting statement and will it be interesting or useful?” As noted above regarding screening questions, if you don’t have a good reason or know how the data will be used, then don’t bother with the question.

Intermission

Always leave your audience wanting more!  In my next blog post, I’ll provide some advice on determining when it’s appropriate to do your own survey versus getting outside help. And I’ll list some qualified survey vendors. 

In the meantime, please reach out to go@sterlingpr.com if you could use help in your PR or marketing efforts.

Live and In-Person Again! Preparing for Public Presentations

Just in time for summer, pandemic restrictions are easing in Silicon Valley. The weather is great, the Bay Area boasts impressive vaccination stats, and many people are venturing back into public to socialize.

Naturally, we’re also starting to see more opportunities for in-person professional interaction. Some people are going to the office again or attending meetings in the flesh. And there are even high-profile tech events scheduled to take place in live formats.  

And while no one we know has mentioned any plans to ditch Zoom entirely, the budding prospects of some real face time indicate it’s also a good time to brush up on non-remote communications skills for public presentations.

public presentation

After days on end of distancing, the idea of professional gatherings and appearances may feel daunting (or at least a little awkward). But we’ve done this before people. I promise, we can do it again!

At Sterling, we regularly provide personalized presentation support and training for our clients. This kind of preparation can help smooth re-entry for all kinds of IRL communications duties. Whether taking part in a panel discussion, presenting to a group, or getting interviewed by a journalist, here are a few public presentation refreshers to aid in transitioning from virtual to live presentation:

Prepare your mind

If you’re giving a talk or presentation, practice it out loud (and not just in your head). Try recording yourself to check your cadence and clarity. If you plan to serve on a panel or sit for an interview, make sure you’re informed about who you’ll be speaking with, for how long, and what subjects are likely to be covered. Stand in front of a bathroom mirror and practice offering prospective commentary or replying to questions. You may feel silly doing it, but it will improve your delivery. You don’t have to memorize a script. But take time to get comfortable with the fear of embarrassment, how you appear, and how you sound. It helps you present more confidently in public.

Prepare your body

Wear comfortable shoes and clothing (no, this doesn’t mean pajamas are permissible — you just don’t want to feel corseted). Stretch. Drink a glass of water. Take some deep breaths before you walk into the room or onto a stage. Unless you are delivering grave news, go ahead and smile. Check your posture and try not to let your shoulders hunch up whether standing or sitting (this actually helps project your voice). 

Prepare to be engaged

Recognize that public presentation is an interaction — a shared encounter with other human beings. So be respectful and attentive. Avoid rambling: short examples, relatable anecdotes, and clever soundbites can frame concepts you want to communicate and leave a lasting impression. Decide in advance what you’d like people to take away from your presentation, commentary, or interview. Stay focused on those ideas to avoid straying from your desired message. 

Above all, remember that being out in the big beautiful world amongst people can be extremely gratifying — both personally and professionally. When it comes to presenting live and in-person, a little preparation goes a long way toward ensuring a positive experience for all involved.

I’ll Be Your Mirror: A 3-Question Brand Identity Assessment

brand identity

A brand identity should reflect the “personality” of a company. But do you feel like the same person you were a year ago today? 

After 12 months of unprecedented upheaval and adaptation, life for many is very different than it once was. Your organization probably isn’t really the same, either. 

In the face of enormous changes to customary work practices and service delivery, many companies have shuffled priorities and adopted new processes. Some have even retargeted products, mission, and scope. 

Now is a good time to reflect on all that alteration — and consider whether your brand identity still holds true. Or if it could use a refresh. 

Here are three questions to help you assess whether your brand identity might need a full facelift — or maybe just a shot of Botox.


1. Who Are You?

Take a cue from Lou Reed, get a proverbial mirror and hold it up to your brand in the harsh light of day. Give it a long, hard look — and try to be honest rather than aspirational as you consider the reflection. What’s changed about your organization and its goals in the past 12 months? What’s changed in your customers? How do you stack up against your competitors? Does any of this impact your existing brand identity?

2. How Are You Seen?

Your personal preferences may be interesting, but they aren’t particularly relevant here. Your brand image should speak to what your target audiences care about and value. Does it? Many people will make snap decisions based on the “virtual” first impression your company makes in today’s largely digital world. With fresh and critical eyes, carefully review your brand’s current touch points. What impression would your preferred customer take away from a first visit to your website, or your company’s presence on LinkedIn or Twitter? Does it positively reflect your current position? Brand promise? Desired trajectory?

3. Are You In Sync?

Your website and social channels aren’t the only things communicating your brand identity to the world. Every single person in your company is a brand ambassador — and your own colleagues may be feeling out of touch and less than certain about the company’s shared mission in our turbulent times. Does everyone who works at your company know what you collectively stand for? How you operate? The kind of customer experience you intend to deliver? Customers like knowing what to expect from the interactions they have with companies. This means delivering brand-consistent experiences across operations — sales, support, direct marketing, social media channels, PR and advertising programs, etc. Is that happening?

Brand Identity = True Reflection

In any business environment, it’s wise to periodically assess your organization’s unique attributes — and position them to best attract the type of partners and customers you want to work with, now and in the future. But after such a tumultuous year, it’s important to review those qualities — and determine whether your brand identity is still accurately conveying them.

If your answers to any of the assessment questions indicate room for improvement, it may be time for a brand identity refresh. Reach out if you need help or guidance. Developing and polishing effective brand communications are Sterling’s specialty.

Photo Credit: Nick Youngson, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Building Marketplace Credibility with Analyst Relations

According to the Institute of Industry Analyst Relations, around 40% to 60% of all technology-purchasing decisions are influenced by analysts. Yet analyst relations is an often-overlooked tool in a company’s communications arsenal (and it should not be).

Married to a strategic public relations plan, analyst relations can substantially shape business strategy through credible industry insight and influence. Moreover, industry analyst reports, reviews, and feedback can significantly impact reputation and brand perception — and map directly to an organization’s share of voice, qualified lead generation, and return on investment (ROI). 

analyst relations and success
Who are industry analysts?

Analyst firms make money by selling trustworthy, third-party analysis and insight. It is an analyst’s job to cultivate deep and extensive market knowledge relevant to a particular domain. They invest heavily in understanding absolutely everything about specific coverage areas. That translates to expert opinion on major players, industry disruptors, emerging issues, and future directions.

Perhaps most importantly, it is their job to understand what customers want from technology vendors and how those needs compare with what is available in the marketplace.

And, let’s not forget…analysts are credible “influencers.” They speak to business leaders and journalists routinely. You will often see their comments included in industry trend stories and other news. Analysts also tend to have close connections to investor and government communities.

Why should you talk to them?

In B2B tech, it’s no secret that technology buyers are savvy, technical people — often skeptical of direct marketing.

Simply put, your buyers listen when analysts talk. When you get mentioned by analysts — either in written research or in 1:1 inquiries — indirect access to prospects opens up. Coverage in official research publications such as Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, Forrester’s Wave, and IDC’s Marketscape are game changers. References in these reports help your sales and marketing teams demonstrate that your technology, company, products, and services are recognized and credible.

Companies also use analysts to stay informed about what is happening in the market and solicit feedback on messaging and product development. Additionally, they rely on analysts to contextualize product or service offerings and make suitable critiques on business strategies.

What is the value of AR?

Industry analysts are deeply connected across your customer community and business ecosystem; working with them allows you to:

  • Get feedback: Educating analysts about your existing and future capabilities keeps them in the know. It also offers an opportunity for you to get valuable feedback on your position and messaging. You can use that information to inform or adjust business and product planning.
  • Spread the word: When analysts know your story, you’re more likely to be top of mind when they’re engaging with pertinent customers, prospects, media, or investors. The perspectives they share about you carry weight because they come from an informed but independent third party.
  • Identify insights: Analysts often share valuable insights based on their network and the research they conduct. By capturing these golden nuggets of information, you could learn much you hadn’t previously considered.
  • Influence prospects: Some analyst firms have close connections with your customer and prospect base. How analysts reference you in consulting engagements and through research can greatly impact your bottom line. They advise customers and publish research that defines vendor purchasing processes — and influences final selections.
Is analyst relations right for your company?

If your offering is in the technology space and/or specific to healthcare, energy, retail, or education verticals — adding analyst relations to your communications mix is an important consideration. It’s a strategic function that delivers returns for your marketing and PR strategy.

What are the first steps?

As with media relations, a successful analyst relations program requires honing relationships to build your company’s reputation and create credibility in the marketplace.

When managing relationships with analysts, companies generally turn to their PR agency. A good analyst relations program will focus on a long-term strategy. Teams will prep executives, facilitate briefings, prepare analyst-focused presentations, schedule inquiries, and ensure the company stays top-of-mind with key analysts and their firms.

To learn more about analyst relations, reach out at go@sterlingpr.com.

Company Podcasting 101: Tips and Best Practices

As explained in a previous post, company podcasting can be a great way to augment marketing and communications goals and showcase expertise in an engaging and popular format.

If you’re considering the launch of a company podcast, here are some podcasting tips and best practices to inform your efforts.

podcasting microphone

Planning a company podcast

Before you launch a new product or service, you need a plan. It’s always important to have the right strategy and track each milestone along the way. Podcasting is no different. It’s critical to have business objectives, a solid communications plan, and a content strategy before launch.

Use these three questions to frame company podcast preparations: 

  • What is your message? 
  • What are your goals?
  • How will you ensure engagement with your audience?

What you need for podcasting

A company podcast will need branding. This includes cover art (for listing on various hosting platforms and for highlighting on your own website). A written show description and a standard introduction that can be reused at the start of each episode is also important. Each individual episode will also need its own brief written description.

You’ll also probably want some background music to accompany your standard introduction and to close out each podcast episode. Musical accompaniment doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. There are loads of free resources online for royalty-free and copyright-free podcast music, including the Free Music ArchivePixabay, and the YouTube Audio Library

Standard equipment for recording can include nothing more than a smartphone. However, we advise that at minimum you record using a headset with microphone or earbuds as they improve voice-capture exponentially. For even more polished recording, there are now dozens of inexpensive podcast microphones available for purchase, many with built-in noise reduction features and pop filters that supply studio-grade sound.

Speaking of studios, they’re great! But you don’t necessarily need one to record a podcast. A quiet, distraction-free room with a closed door should suffice.

Some software will be required to produce your company podcast. While you can use standard smartphone recording features or even conferencing apps like Zoom or Skype to record your sessions, we recommend exploring applications purpose-built for podcasting. In our client podcast production efforts, we’re currently using Ringr due to its remote recording clarity, same-room sound, and multiparty participation features.

You’ll also need a podcast hosting service to store and distribute your episode files and to submit them to Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or other podcast directories. There are tons of affordable podcast hosting services, and many provide extras such as analytics, scheduling tools, and social sharing features. Sterling currently uses podcast industry stalwart libsyn for our clients.

Coaching tips for first-time podcasters

Aside from using headphones and a mic and recording in a quiet space, here are a few other tips for recording company podcasts:

  • Encourage participants to start over or restate as needed – it’s fairly easy to edit and stich-together audio files. And everyone stumbles verbally sometimes. As long as you aren’t broadcasting a live audio stream, take advantage of the medium’s benefits to produce the best listening experience. On the flip side, don’t expect or aim for absolutely flawless delivery; overly scripted podcasts tend to be stilted and unappealing.
  • The tempo of speaking should be close to when you speak with someone on the phone, not too fast and not too slow. Remember to breathe.
  • Citing statistics and sources is great for credibility, but there’s a diminishing return on effectiveness in a single audio encounter. Judiciously curate your references and try to limit stats to 3–4 in any single episode.
  • Unless you’re creating a single speaker podcast, the experience is a conversation and should sound like one. Encourage authenticity, reciprocity, and interesting anecdotes; and suggest that guests pause briefly before answering questions. These qualities tend to engage listeners.

Getting the word out

Once your company podcast is recorded, edited, hosted, and live for streaming or download, you’ll want to spread the news to potential listeners. In addition to encouraging all your friends and family to listen and review where applicable, publicize your podcast on your company website. Reach out to your intended audience with links to your episodes via your organization’s social media accounts, and participate in #PodRevDay on Twitter and similar podcast-related forums.

You can also engage with podcast directories (Apple, Spotify, etc.) on social media to increase potential reach. And depending on your podcast format and amplification goals, outbound pitching for your show to appear in industry “top ten” lists and roundups relevant to your target audience might also be a good idea.

If you’d like more information or further guidance on developing a podcast or integrating podcasting with your overall PR and communications objectives, feel free to email us at go@sterlingpr.com or call (408) 395-5500.

Carli Aiona | Sterling Communications

Consider the Company Podcast

One truly under-utilized professional communications medium is the podcast. While this digital audio content delivery format has been around for about 20 years, it’s still largely neglected for brand audience development and messaging amplification.

Sure, many companies advertise on or sponsor third-party podcasts. And many thought leaders already engage with popular podcast shows as guests or contributors. That’s all great! But such avenues largely mimic the customs of traditional audio formats like radio. 

The power of podcasts

Modern companies should consider podcasts along the same lines as video. Just as with creating a company YouTube or Vimeo channel — or featuring video webinars, sizzle reels, and product or service explainers on your organization’s website — a company podcast can deliver powerful encapsulated content directly to interested individuals at scale.

The format is portable, intimate, and incredibly engaging — and podcast consumption is on the rise.

podcast headphones

According to The Infinite Dial 2020 report from Edison Research: 

  • 212 million Americans are familiar with podcasting 
  • 104 million Americans are monthly listeners 
  • 68 million Americans are weekly listeners
  • 48% of listeners are ages 12–34, 32% are 35–54, and 20% are 55+
  • 55% of listener audiences are men, 45% are women 

Podcasts and PR

Such a large and growing audience deserves attention in public relations strategies. Companies can pursue podcast development to augment marketing and communications goals, to showcase expertise, to provide self-directed learning content, or even broaden recruitment outreach. As Business.com notes:

  • Podcasts capture audience attention
  • Podcasts create a personalized experience
  • Podcasts help build and maintain important network connections

In short, podcasting presents a great opportunity for organizations to demonstrate knowledge and value through a convenient, popular, and effective medium.

Sterling Communications recently worked with a client to develop, launch, and produce a monthly podcast focused on highlighting key mission objectives and exploring pertinent issues within a specific sector. Discussions about the concept began in July 2020, development and production officially kicked off in September, and the first episode went live in November. That’s a pretty speedy process for mastering a new medium and establishing a new brand communications vehicle!

While there was definitely a learning curve, moving from podcast idea to actualization was neither inordinately complex nor cost prohibitive. The barriers to podcasting are pretty low — anyone can make one, and some amateur efforts are great.

Podcast prep

That being said, as with all professional communications, developing a brand podcast requires clear strategy and forethought. Not every company’s communication needs are the same, so not every podcast will be the same. Here are three research and preparation tips if you’re considering a podcast for your organization:

  1. Podcast exploration: Browse and listen to a variety of freely available podcasts for inspiration. Make sure your research includes podcasts with single speakers, one-on-one interviews or conversations, and group panels. Sample podcasts devoted to diverse topics, not just those covering your organization’s area of focus. Gauge your preferences (and those of your intended audience) for different episode lengths (5 minute, 20 minute, or about an hour).
  2. Podcast software and hardware: Learn a bit about the tools you’ll need to make it all happen. While pretty much every device these days comes with microphone and recording capabilities, there is a vast assortment of equipment, apps, and services that can impact quality and either ease or complicate your podcasting efforts. We’ll discuss a few recording/editing/hosting/distribution options in our next post.
  3. Podcast branding: Spend some time thinking about your podcast’s “personality.” You’ll need to consider what you’ll call it, who will host it, how it will be described, what kinds of images and collateral will accompany it for listing and sharing.

Other deliberations will include cadence (episode posting yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily); whether there’ll be guests, mapping out a content calendar to plan episodes by theme and/or topic, and budgeting investment (in both dollars and time).

Keep in mind that very few podcasts achieve the popularity of The Tim Ferris Show or TED Talks Daily, and that’s OK. A company podcast shouldn’t aim to be the next Serial

Building any podcast audience is gradual and takes time. And the ultimate aim of a company podcast should be to supply engaging content for a pretty specific audience (say, your desired customers, potential partners, industry influencers, and future recruits).

Envisioning a company podcast that’s tailored to add communications value specific to your organization is the best place to start. We’ll devote our next post to detailing “Company Podcasting 101: Tips and Best Practices.” In the meantime, you can email us at go@sterlingpr.com or call (408) 395-5500 to learn more or further discuss podcasting and PR.

Communicating effectively on sustainability

The diesel cheating affair of 2015 nearly destroyed Volkswagen. The company sat at the center of one of the largest scandals in auto history after employees wrote software to make Volkswagen diesel car emissions appear cleaner than they were. Volkswagen’s long-standing reputation for engineering excellence and sustainability innovation was destroyed overnight. $30 billion in compensation, years in court appearances, and reams of repair costs followed. 

This crisis forced Volkswagen to take a hard look at its strategy, operations, and culture. It had to fight for its existence. Only then could it formulate a recovery strategy. 

The company is lucky to have survived.

BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010 was the environmental mega-crisis of the decade, which proved a cautionary tale. On a business and communications footing, there was a path for Volkswagen to follow after BP’s travails. News trends also gave Volkswagen some air cover in the U.S., as Donald Trump’s presidential run and a visit from Pope Francis were making headlines at the time. But there are savvy methods for rebounding from a crisis no matter the scenario.

In Political Risk, a book on how organizations anticipate risk and insecurity, Condoleeza Rice and Amy Zegart outlined the method for how companies can tackle crises effectively. They take them seriously, approach with humility, and they lead from the top. Fast application of these principles can help companies find a path forward. Clear communications play an important role in such endeavors.


Time and Tide and Sustainability

Now, industry analysts say Volkswagen is reborn. It is the leading global seller of cars, and has lofty electric car goals for market share and driving emissions down. It has pledged to spend $25 billion to develop battery-powered or hybrid versions of every one of its models by 2030. It wants to flood the electric vehicle market with affordable cars — “mainstream” it away from the Tesla market perception of EVs as the preserve of the few, not the many. Electric vehicles are expected to account for as much as 25 percent of global sales by 2025. Volkswagen is hungry for a large slice of the pie. Damaged reputation still hinders that effort to a degree.


While companies such as Volkswagen were guilty of misleading behavior, others have pragmatically tried to plot the journey from being the very emblem of the environmental degradation, to standing at the forefront of sustainable changes driving the low-carbon economy. 

sustainability communications
Image by Gerd Altmann

A decade ago, I advised a client called Drax on effectively communicating its necessary shift toward sustainability. Drax is a biomass and coal-fired power station in England that, at the time, was aiming to diversify to low carbon fuels. It had a visionary chief executive who wasn’t afraid of what the move from coal to biomass would send to the market. To her, the business case was compelling and the environmental benefits profound — and she was able to win over institutional investors. Drax also chose to work with Imperial College London, a world-class research university, and with leading NGO, WWF. Working with third-party stakeholders meant concepts were challenged and road tested, and gave Drax’s transformation greater credibility in the market. 

The sustainable case was made to transition from coal to biomass, and the company was able to change with the times. Now, Drax is planning to become the world’s first carbon-negative business within 10 years, furthering their sustainability credentials. 

Brave Green World 

With 2021’s new administration in the US, we are likely to see renewed private sector investment in the clean-tech and clean energy sectors. Ambitious climate targets, a reversal of the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and more investment in solar, wind, and sustainable energy projects are on the table. The attention and commitment to sustainability will ratchet up again across sectors. 

The competing stories of Volkswagen and Drax demonstrate how leadership and communicating effectively with all stakeholders can allow you to rebuild after a crisis, but also that pivoting boldly to face the realities of a new landscape and setting the right communications strategy up-front can have real impact on success.

One created a crisis and handled it badly initially, before finding a path to restore its image and embrace technology that would allow millions of people to drive electric cars. The other didn’t waver when it saw that renewable energy, and driving down emissions, was compatible with business performance. 

There is long-term opportunity in risk, crisis, and transition stemming from the convergence of profit, people, and planet. And there are ample techniques for communicating those issues to the world professionally.

But they all start with a simple step. In short, doing the right thing.

The Glory of Good Grammar

Grammar gets a bad rap. 

Maybe the tedium of rote lessons in grade school induced grammar aversion. Or maybe it has something to do with the way grammar correction is so often employed to scold or ridicule. Who hasn’t been on both the giving and receiving end of such grammatical slights from time to time?

Nevertheless, grammar is important. It definitely colors perception in professional settings. According to the National Law Review, grammar actually played a role in a federal court case this year. The defendant’s motion was not only denied, but the counsel was chided for submitting a brief “riddled with spelling mistakes and ungrammatical sentences.” A sample of text from the offending brief reads: “PURSUANT TO FEDERAL RULES OF CIVILE PROCEDURES RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDUE 12(b) (2), (3), and (6) FIRST STANADFINANCIAL COMPANY MUST BE DISMISSED.” Is it any wonder the District Court was not impressed?

Grammar neglect

There’s rarely cause to make a federal case out of grammar. Most folks probably prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Consider the emergence of automated writing aids in all the apps you use these days. There has been an awful lot of effort employed to free people from worrying whether the “i” comes before the “e.” 

And it’s not just spellcheckers: Grammarly, the company responsible for an AI-powered tool that also scrutinizes sentence structure and word choice in real time, closed a $90 million funding round last year. That’s a mighty big investment in the ability to offload grammatical dexterity.

When we do pause to consciously consider grammar, it’s generally with vexation at someone’s poor usage or anxiety about our own.

But grammar isn’t meant to be avoided or weaponized or feared. It’s meant to reinforce logic, clarify meaning, and help us to communicate with each other. We should think about grammar. It doesn’t confine us. Instead, grammar guides us through the abundant and ever-evolving capabilities of language. That’s a noble journey.

And besides, grammar can be a lot of fun. 

Pleasures of grammar

We’re big fans of Mignon Fogarty’s popular Grammar Girl podcast — a decade-deep treasure trove of interesting instruction on all things grammatical. What’s a comma splice? Why is “Worcester” pronounced “Wooster”? Where did daylight saving time come from? How do you punctuate an indirect question? Did you know “gravy” is a ghost word*? 

Possessing the answers to these questions can make you a better communicator. (And it can make you a more engaging companion at a dinner party!)


Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Even schoolchildren can enjoy the way a misplaced comma results in hilarity.

Most importantly, the pursuit of good grammar demonstrates discernment — care for how our thoughts are understood by others. It’s a glue that helps us relate to one another.

Communication is central to our services at Sterling Communications, so we’re naturally drawn to explorations of grammar. And while we’re happy to employ digital tools to assist in our work, we also believe professional communication requires human attention. For example, the automated writing aids embedded in the application used to write this article didn’t find any errors in the offending legal brief mentioned above. (Capitalization settings are probably the culprit, but human eyes care not for such excuses.)

Like it or not, grammar is inextricably tied to conveying purpose and intent. As the prolific linguist David Crystal has explained:

“Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language. It can help foster precision, detect ambiguity, and exploit the richness of expression available in English. And it can help everyone — not only teachers of English but teachers of anything, for all teaching is ultimately a matter of getting to grips with meaning.”


*Ghost words are words that made it into the dictionary because of an error or misunderstanding.